Deadwood Magazine

GIRLS OF THE GULCH                         

The lady of the house
By Rena Webb


She was the much younger second wife of pioneer Deadwood businessman W.E. Adams who outlived him by nearly six decades. Widowed twice, divorced once, she lived alone for the last 55 years of her life until she died in California on June 4, 1993, at the age of 95.

Mary Adams Belmat left a substantial estate that benefits projects in the Northern Hills twin cities of Deadwood and Lead. Before her death she established the Adams-Mastrovich Family Foundation which contributed to the restoration of the Adams House and the Lead Opera House and helps fund the Adams House and Museum, the Carnegie Public Library and the Northern Hills General Hospital in Deadwood.

Local people who knew Mary Adams describe her as a very firm, strong-willed woman who was careful with a dollar. (They sometimes use less flattering terms like: “tightfisted,”  “stingy” or “penny-pinching.”) But it was precisely that frugal lifestyle that enabled her to sustain and expand the inheritance from her second husband.

The youngest child of Ana and Eli Nozica Mastrovich, Mary was born on January 22, 1898, in Lead’s ethnicYugoslavian neighborhood known as “Slav alley.”  She was a young girl of 16 when her father, a Homestake miner, was murdered, a crime that has never been solved.

Shortly after the murder, Ana Mastrovich sent her young daughter to California to live. While in California, Mary became a teenage widow when her first husband, a California wholesale grocer named Vicich, died in the influenza epidemic of 1917.

During those same years, William Emery Adams had established himself as a respected pillar of the Deadwood community. His successful wholesale grocery business supplied the entire Black Hills, extending into northwestern South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. He served as six terms as city mayor and was on the board of directors of several banks, the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations.

Adams and his first wife, Alice May Burnham, entertained local society at the elegant Queen Anne mansion built in 1892 by Harris Franklin and purchased by Adams in 1919. Their oldest daughter Lucile married Frank Stratton and moved to Detroit; youngest daughter Helen married California socialite Irving Benton.

But wealth could not guarantee happiness for W. E. Adams who lost his entire family over a period of 13 years. Lucile died in 1912 from typhoid fever. Mrs. Adams died of cancer on June 6, 1925, while visiting Helen in California. Helen died in childbirth the following day and her newborn daughter died just a few hours later.

The attractive young widow, Mary Mastrovich Vicich, entered the picture through a mix-up in train seating reservations while she was traveling from Pasadena to spend the summer visiting her mother in Lead.

 “I had railroad reservations for my trip some two months in advance so you can imagine my surprise when changing trains to continue my journey I found a small oriental man occupying the seat which had been assigned to me,” she told a local newspaper reporter in a 1974 interview.

 A young Mary Mastrovich showed early promise of the beauty that would one day captivate a wealthy Deadwood businessman.    (Adams Museum photo)The conductor explained that the man in my seat was Mr. Adams’ valet and the company would be happy to give me a drawing room at their expense as Mr. Adams needed both seats. …Well, I didn’t know Mr.Adams and I didn’t care who he was, I just wanted my own seat…

             Begrudgingly, Mary finally changed seats, then found herself “looking up at this very distinguished, saged gentlemen, dressed in the best fashion of the day. It didn’t take a higher education to see that his clothes were made to order.”

When the “distinguished gentleman” introduced himself, Mary realized he was the wealthy Deadwood businessman she’d read about in news clippings that her family had sent her.

Mary said they spent the rest of the trip visiting about the Deadwood-Lead area, but when the train arrived in Pluma she declined his offer to drive her home and his dinner invitation.

Mary soon found herself doggedly pursued by a man accustomed to getting his own way. Adams began sending notes to her mother’s home in Lead. Finally, in late September, Mary agreed to have dinner with him. The ensuing courtship caused wagging tongues and raised eyebrows in the small Northern Hills community, to such an extent Adams denied the relationship in local newspapers. Despite public denials, he privately continued to woo the young widow.

“I returned to California,” Mary said, “and for the next year, no matter where I went on business, when I would check into the hotel, there would be a room full of roses waiting. Every Saturday when I remained at home, there would be more roses and quite often, candy. It was like living a theatrical production.”

She later said she thought Adams was a “syruper” – a phrase she coined to describe his excessiveness.

Mary said she turned down his first marriage proposal. “I thanked him but said it was out of the question. I was Catholic, he was Episcopalian, and there was the difference in age between us.”  (Adams was 44 years older than the attractive young woman.) 

She didn’t mention another obvious difference. She was from a working class background; he was affluent and socially prominent.

One wonders if Mary Vicich might not have planned her moves like a master chess player. She obviously wasn’t as smitten as her elderly suitor, but must have given careful consideration to the advantages of a May-December marriage.

“The Adams name, his wealth and status in the community, were surely attractive to Mary,” said Adams Museum Director Mary Kopco. “I see no other reason on earth why she married him, although she enjoyed being chased, and he treated her like a queen.”

As the cat and mouse game progressed, Mary was receiving written guidance from a friend in Lead. In one letter, Katherine Curran recommended the young widow marry Adams, “so you will be finally settled.” She also advised Mary to insist on an allowance of her own because “it would be humiliating otherwise after your long independence.”

“Above all don’t start any housework,” Curran counseled. “Let him know you cannot work and it is much better and cheaper to have someone who can. No window cleaning, you understand.”

The love letters Mary received from her elderly admirer and Curran’s letter were found in the Adams House and are now preserved in Deadwood city archives. Kopco suspects that Mary deliberately left the letters behind. “I think she wanted to prove to people that he loved her,” Kopco said.

A December 1926 letter from Adams said, “It has brought me much joy and I hope some to you and now I ‘wonder what shall the harvest be?’ We are congenial companions. Then why should our paths diverge?”

By the following spring Adams must have sensed the young widow was relenting. He sent her a bridal lingerie flyer with the words “June bride” underlined.

Mary Vicich did become a June bride. She married Adams June 30, 1927, at the Los Angeles Church of the Immaculate Conception. The newlyweds came home to Deadwood and the elegant Van Buren Street mansion where they kept separate bedrooms. Mary occupied the spacious turreted “Taft bedroom” while her husband slept across the hall.

W. E. and Mary Adams spent the next seven years traveling and entertaining at their elegant homes in Deadwood and California. Mary supported her husband’s plans to build the Adams Memorial Museum in memory of his first family. The museum was dedicated on October 4, 1930.

Although Mary’s motives for wedding the elderly widower may have been less than pure, “I believe she came to admire and have deep affection for him,” Kopco said. “Everyone who knew her describes her as very much a lady. I think she made herself into something she wasn’t. She was not born that way, and that’s probably why people resented her.”

Mary Mastrovich Adams (Adams Museum Photo)Mary was widowed for the second time when Adams died June 16, 1934, after he collapsed with a stroke nine days earlier while presiding over a board of directors meeting at First National Bank. She inherited a sizable estate for the day -- $60,000 plus $40,000 in securities, automobiles, and the Deadwood house.

After his death, Mary moved back to California. She closed up the Deadwood home with contents intact – furniture, linens, photographs, the family Bible, books, sympathy cards from Adams’ funeral -- cookies were even left in a jar in the pantry.

Although she returned to Deadwood every summer for many years, Mary never again lived in the Adams house, staying instead with relatives or in a Franklin Hotel room with foldout Murphy bed and a hot plate.

Her apartment near downtown Los Angeles was equally modest, according to Edward Libby, a trustee for the Adams-Mastrovich Family Foundation. “Mary was a woman of considerable means who could have afforded to live anywhere she wanted,” he said.  When asked why she lived in the declining neighborhood, Mary told him, “The more I save, the more I can give away.”

One woman who was a high school student in Deadwood in the 1940s resented Mary’s parsimony. “Mary certainly had enough money to go to a beauty shop, but my mother sent me up to Mary’s room at the Franklin on Saturdays to wash and set her hair for nothing,” she said.

Mary, however, wasn’t adverse to spending money when it wasn’t her own, according to Halsey Halls, another foundation trustee, who told about taking her to a Central City supper club. Before they entered the restaurant Mary grasped his arm and said, “I just want to tell you that whenever Ed (another trustee) would take me out to eat, he would never spare the horses.” 

“In essence she was letting me know that we were going to have the best thing on the menu,” Halsey said.

The wealthy widow married for the third time in 1937. She and Rapid City dentist Dr. William E. Balmat were wed in San Francisco and lived together in Los Angeles for 18 months. He walked out of their apartment in 1938 and never returned. The next time they met was in a Los Angeles courtroom 30 years later.

According to a 1968 story in the Rapid City Journal, the retired dentist appeared before Superior Judge Marvin A. Freeman asking that his estranged wife be ordered to pay him alimony of $1,000 a month.

Balmat testified he last saw his wife on August 15, 1938, when she hid his car key to prevent him from attending a political rally. He found the key, left for the rally and “I never went back.”

Mrs. Balmat filed a countersuit for divorce. Both parties charged cruelty and Mrs. Balmat also charged desertion. Agreeing with the contention that her husband had deserted her 30 years previously, the judge denied Balmat’s request for separate maintenance and granted the divorce. He did, however, order Mrs. Balmat to pay her husband’s attorney a $500 fee.

The Adams house remained unoccupied for 51 years, gradually falling into disrepair. Whatever her reasons, Mary was disinclined to rent or sell the Deadwood property, nor was she willing to spend money for repairs. As is common with vacant houses, a haunted house rumor circulated around the neighborhood. Some people felt Mary herself started the rumor to keep children from vandalizing the property.

Eventually, six years before her death, Mary Adams sold the Van Buren Street house. It was a privately owned bed and breakfast before the city bought it in 1992 and  continued to operate the bed and breakfast until heating and plumbing problems forced closure in 1995.

After a two-year restoration project funded by Historic Preservation dollars and a grant from the Adams-Mastrovich Family Foundation, the elegant mansion re-opened as a museum last July.

Mary Mastrovich, who always liked to have the last word, may have finally silenced the wagging tongues.                                                                                    DM

Deadwood lore right to your door. Click here for subscription information. 

Deadwood Magazine ©2002